The strategy of allying with the enemy of one’s enemy has plagued the Kurdish opposition for decades. But it is a road to nowhere, writes Yassamine Mather
For anyone who had followed the talks between US secretary of state John Kerry and Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov in early September, it might be difficult to understand why the war in Syria has escalated so dramatically in the last 10 days.
The September 9 deal - hailed as a “breakthrough” to put Syria’s peace process back on track - included a nationwide truce effective from September 11, improved humanitarian aid access and joint military targeting of Islamist groups. At the time we were told that the Assad government, supported by Iran and Russia, as well as opposition groups, supported by the United States, Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf states, would all stop fighting as a “confidence-building measure”.
Ironically both the US and Russia agreed to keep the political side of the deal secret. The Middle East was full of speculation about this aspect of the talks, however, and when the Syrian regime and Iran’s Islamic Republic welcomed the proposals there was an assumption that a compromise regarding president Bashar al-Assad’s future has been reached - maybe allowing him to participate in post-deal elections or a process of transition during which Assad would stay in power, albeit in a demoted role.
Less than a month after the deal was signed, the situation could not be worse. The ceasefire and proposed peace deal are dead and buried. Syrian planes - by all accounts backed up by Russian airpower - are bombing civilians in Aleppo every day, creating a humanitarian disaster. Relations between the US and Russia appear to be at an all-time low and this does not augur well for the situation in the Middle East.
Meanwhile, the United States’ at times open support for jihadists poses an obvious question about the risks the US is willing to accept for getting rid of Assad. Inevitably we have to wonder who Kerry had in mind when he said, “We must go after these terrorists.” The last three weeks show that the US is backing at least some of “these terrorists”. In fact the battle for Aleppo proves once more how the vacuum in the region - largely created by the US-led invasion of Iraq - is a gift to jihadist forces.
By September 28 the US was warning Russia that it would suspend bilateral engagement on Syria “if Russia does not take immediate steps to halt a Russian-backed Syrian regime assault on rebel-held eastern Aleppo”. The idea that the guns should fall silent in one war - between the Assad government and a variety of rebel groups - while the US and Russia put their foot on the accelerator in the battle against Islamic State is a little bizarre. In fact the ceasefire was flawed from the beginning. According to Jonathan Marcus, writing on the BBC website,
Neither the Russians nor the Americans were able to convince their allies to accept the deal. Moscow had the easier job, to convince the Assad regime, which is hugely dependent upon Russia. The Americans were able to convince some of the rebel groups to back the deal - but many others did not. Indeed many of them have no particular relationship with the Americans ... Any defeat of IS would create local vacuums, into which one or other actor, the government or the rebels, might step in.1
Patrick Cockburn came up with a good reason as to why the ceasefire fell so dramatically early in the process. On September 21 he wrote:
The British participation in the misdirected US-led air raid that killed at least 62 Syrian soldiers and the final breakdown of the shaky six-day truce combine to underline the need to bring the war to an end and to emphasise how difficult it will be to accomplish this in the near future. The British and Americans admit to a mistake in targeting the Syrian army rather than Isis, but in the atmosphere of chronic suspicion that swirls around anything to do with the Syrian war, there will be plenty, and not just in Damascus and Moscow, who will not believe them.2
Let us not forget, the Syrian regime’s retaliation, supported by Russia, has been brutal. Airplanes and helicopters are intensely shelling the neighbourhoods in Aleppo under the control of various opposition groups - mainly jihadists of one type or another. It is time people admitted that inside Syria there are no armed ‘secular’ opposition groups.
Hilary Benn, Angela Eagle and other Labour MPS who voted for UK military intervention in Syria must be so proud of their action. Once more they have contributed to large-scale destruction in the region.
The Turkish interventions and recent realignment regarding Syria have added an additional level of complexity. As Turkey’s new-found support for the Assad regime solidifies, relations with Tehran are improving, leaving Iranian and Syrian Kurds in a more vulnerable position.
So let us sum up the situation. The Syrian regime is a brutal dictatorship, which will take every opportunity to kill its opponents, not least the armed rebels in Aleppo. Iran’s strategic support for Assad is in pursuit of its own reactionary, opportunist interests, in terms of the country’s regional ambitions. The Russian intervention, which started a year ago, was a disaster from the beginning and is proving to be a major factor in the escalation of the conflict.
However, the Russian foreign minister is telling an aspect of the truth when he claims that the US is trying to “spare” some jihadist groups in its attempt to unseat Assad.3 Reports from western journalists in the region seem to confirm the accusation that Washington had refused to press its allies - ironically labelled ‘moderate Islamists’ - to break from the more hardline jihadist forces. This, in addition to the Russian/Syrian air campaign and Turkey’s U-turn regarding the survival of Assad, is pushing rebel groups into the arms of al-Nusra - now known as Jabhat Fateh al-sham.
In late July the group was renamed, claiming it had cut its ties with al Qa’eda (which many doubt). This was clearly done with the support of Saudi Arabia, the emirates of the Persian Gulf and probably the United States. Clearly there has been an attempt to legitimise the group, together with its financial and political support in Syria.
Led since its formation by Abu Mohammad al-Julani, Jabhat Fateh al-Sham has made a number of attempts to find allies amongst a plethora of jihadist groups, many of them labelled ‘moderate Islamists’ by the US and UK. However, its past (lingering) association with al Qa’eda deterred most groups from entering any such alliance and it was denied a representative at the peace talks in Geneva and Vienna.
The group’s origins go back to 2011, when the then al-Qa’eda leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who is now prominent in IS, attempted to organise jihadist groups in the region. According to former British diplomat Alastair Crooke, elements in the US military have confirmed there was CIA complicity with al Qa’eda in Syria:
No-one on the ground believes in this mission or this effort. They know we are just training the next generation of jihadists, so they are sabotaging it by saying, ‘I don’t want to be responsible for Nusra guys saying they were trained by Americans’ ….
Distinguishing between the FSA [Free Syrian Army] and al-Nusra is impossible, because they are virtually the same organisation. As early as 2013, FSA commanders were defecting with their entire units to join al-Nusra. There, they still retain the FSA moniker, but it is merely for show, to give the appearance of secularism, so they can maintain access to weaponry provided by the CIA and Saudi intelligence services. The reality is that the FSA is little more than a cover for the al-Qa’eda-affiliated al-Nusra.
The fact that the FSA simply passed American-made weaponry off to al-Nusra is also unsurprising, considering that the CIA’s vetting process of militias in Syria is lacklustre, consisting of little more than running traces in old databases. These traces rely on knowing the individuals’ real names in the first place, and assume that they were even fighting-age males when the data was collected.4
Fall of PYD
Meanwhile, the United States and its regional ally, Egypt, have managed to foster a deal between Syria’s Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) and Syria Tomorrow, an opposition group led by Ahmad Jarba, who at least until recently was backed by Saudi Arabia and who was president of the Syrian National Coalition (2013-14). The two organisations have agreed to work jointly “toward building Syria’s future”.
The deal signed in Cairo on September 10 calls for the overthrow of the Assad regime and all of its symbols, the creation of a “national umbrella for all, building a state of law, establishing in Syria a civil democratic pluralist state, while maintaining the integrity of Syrian land, and continuing the fight against terrorist organisations, such as Islamic State”.5
But no other Syrian opposition group has signed up and they are unlikely to do so. All reports from Syria confirm what we have always maintained: there are no viable ‘moderate’ Islamic groups inside the country.
In early 2015 when it became clear that the Kurdish Democratic Union Party in Syria (PYD) was talking to the United States regarding air support, we warned Iranian and Kurdish supporters of PYD that this was a slippery slope that would lead to the organisation becoming a convenient force used by the United States to its own advantage. Iranian, Turkish and Syrian Kurdish supporters told us we were mistaken: PYD was a mass organisation with solid support on the ground, it was claimed. It would be able to resist any US proposals, it would never sell out. A year later, it gives me no pleasure to say we were right.
In autumn of 2014 the Obama administration started giving support to PYD forces after IS had surrounded the small town of Kobanê close to the Turkish border (the Turkish government openly opposed this) and in 2015-16 Iranian and Kurdish leftwingers in the US were reporting regular visits by PYD leaders to Washington. In the summer of 2016 it became clear that US special forces were assisting the PYD and on August 20, according to the Alaraby news agency, the Pentagon admitted the presence of US advisors in Kurdish areas. And on September 23, less than two weeks after the deal with the Syria Tomorrow group, it was reported that two planes loaded with weapons for the PYD had landed in Kobanê.
So there we have it: the PYD not only signed up to a coalition with Saudi-backed forces courtesy of the Egyptian coup leaders, but it is now accepting US military aid. Clearly the fall has been faster than anyone expected, although it hardly came as a surprise. As I pointed out throughout the summer of 2015, far larger organisations had demonstrated how such alliances inevitably lead to complete political bankruptcy. The PYD is no exception: it is following a path already taken by a number of Kurdish organisations in Iran and Iraq.
This strategy of allying with the enemy of one’s enemies has plagued the Kurdish opposition for decades. Until 2014 the Syrian Kurds had maintained a level of independence and integrity, but this latest collapse into the familiar pattern of reliance on foreign powers will have serious consequences for the revolutionary left in the region.
There is no short cut to defeating all the region’s reactionary forces - IS, Iran’s Islamic Republic, Assad, etc - nor to building a viable force to oppose Russian and American-led interventions. Yes, it will be long, hard struggle. The PYD’s actions have played into our enemies’ hands.